Obama So Far: Iran, Russia and China

There have been a couple of "confirmed" inflection points in the Obama administration's approach to Iran, Russia and China in the past few weeks, and the contrast between the outcomes is revealing, both about the relative challenges of the three portfolios, but also about the relative development of the three countries.

With regard to Iran, although there are not yet any concrete outcomes, the Obama administration's strategy of open-ended engagement accompanied by staged sanctions has clearly isolated Tehran, to an extent that many critics of the Obama approach -- myself included -- did not anticipate. In the past week, Iran has reiterated its desire to continue fuel swap negotiations with the Vienna Group, and has essentially accepted EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's invitation to direct talks, at the same time that the EU was announcing a new round of stiff unilateral sanctions. Meanwhile, Iran finds relations with Russia increasingly chilly, with Moscow formally rebuking President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his recent criticism of Russian support for U.N. sanctions, calling his remarks unacceptable" and "irresponsible."

The shift in Russia's approach reflects a qualitiative reassessment by Moscow of the goals of Iran's nuclear program, which John McCreary discusses here. As he notes, it's impossible to know what information was shared behind closed doors. But in the context of broader bilateral relations, the Obama reset seems to have had a convincing effect in terms of Russia's short-term calculus of the cost-benefit analysis of cooperation with the U.S. As I've argued before, the benefits of cooperation, with the U.S. and Europe, remain structurally driven for Russia. And the mid-term calculus still presents many possibilities for divergence, especially since Iran is an important commercial partner for Russia. But the space offered by the reset has certainly reduced the short-term costs of cooperation.

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